Joining a credit union as a CEO, EVP, SVP, or VP is exciting yet challenging. As an executive leader, your role is pivotal in driving the credit union’s strategies, mission, vision, values, growth, and member satisfaction. It is rare to find a credit union with a disciplined process to onboard executives, which, by the nature of their role, requires a different knowledge base and historical reference points than the typical new hire. As a result, the new executive must take on the responsibility of onboarding themself. This intentional effort sets the stage for success, and helps prevent significant missteps.
The Nine Reasons for Executive Onboarding
- To Gain a Comprehensive Understanding of the Credit Union: On the surface, all credit unions may look alike, but they are quite different. Each credit union has a different business model in how they choose to drive revenue, manage expenses, collaborate, and provide products and services to the members. For example, one credit union may be fee averse, and another sees fees as a vital revenue source. One credit union may be high touch while another may focus primarily on a digital-first service model. It is crucial to understand these variables, and this understanding will allow the executive to understand the credit union’s history, mission, vision, and core values. Understanding the credit union’s culture and ethos enables the executive to align their leadership style and decision-making with its objectives.
- To Understand the Credit Union’s Culture and Values: A new executive must understand the Credit Union’s culture, mission, and values. Every organization has norms on how they work, play, lead, collaborate, and communicate with each other. This step involves actively engaging with employees at all levels. By immersing themselves in the organization’s culture, new executives will better align their actions and decisions with the credit union’s values and purpose.
- To Build Relationships: A new executive will face three relationship subsets in the new organization. One subset will be allies, who will embrace the new executive and work hard to help them succeed. The second subset is the detractors. These employees may not embrace the new person and may even try to undermine their authority and efforts. The third subset is the neutrals. These employees just put their heads down, did their job, and let the cards fall where they fell. These three subsets will be found with people who report to, are peers of, and those higher in the food chain. Knowing the “motives” of each subset will help the new executive navigate tough decisions or advocate for new ideas or change. It will help the new executive prioritize who and how they communicate and forge meaningful connections.
- To Take a Deep Dive into Operations: The goal is to understand the credit union’s operational processes, systems, and procedures. Shadowing frontline staff, participating in daily operations, and attending team meetings will provide valuable insights into the organization’s day-to-day functioning. Use this as an opportunity to identify areas for improvement, streamline workflows, and leverage technology to enhance efficiency and member experience. Through this process, you will gain firsthand knowledge essential for strategic decision-making.
- To Actively Seek Mentors: Seek mentorship from seasoned, highly respected executives, industry experts, or board members. These allies will provide valuable guidance, advice, and support as you navigate your role as a new executive. Tap into their experience, leverage their insights, and learn from their successes and challenges. Establishing a mentorship relationship often accelerates your professional growth, broadens your perspectives, and empowers you to overcome obstacles confidently. Additionally, mentors help new executives feel supported and empowered as they acclimate to their new roles.
- To Understand Regulatory Landscape: Given the highly regulated nature of the financial services industry, you must familiarize yourself with the regulatory framework, but equally important is understanding the regulatory challenges the credit union is facing, how they work with the examiners and auditors, and their process of ingesting input from these governing bodies. Also, learn how to collaborate with compliance officers, auditors, the supervisory committee, and legal advisors who work to uphold the credit union’s reputation and integrity.
- To Set Clear Goals and Expectations: Work closely with the board of directors and senior leadership to establish clear goals, priorities, and performance expectations for your tenure as an executive. Define measurable objectives aligned with the credit union’s strategic plan and develop actionable strategies to achieve them. Setting clear expectations fosters accountability, transparency, and alignment toward shared goals and demonstrates your organizational value.
- To Learn the Innovation Ethos: In today’s rapidly evolving financial landscape, innovation is critical to staying competitive. However, a new executive must learn the organization’s risk appetite and tolerance. Before a new executive can encourage a culture of creativity and continuous improvement and challenge the status quo, understanding the history and starting point is vital.
- To Become an Expert Communicator: Effective communication fosters transparency, builds trust, and aligns stakeholders’ interests. As a new executive, prioritize open and honest communication with employees, board members, and other stakeholders. Be proactive in soliciting feedback, acting on that feedback, addressing concerns, and sharing updates on key initiatives. Clear and transparent communication helps to mitigate misunderstandings and fosters a positive organizational culture.
Here is A Five-Step Onboard Process
- Pre-Start Date Preparation:
- Conduct Research – Familiarize yourself with the credit union’s history, mission, vision, values, and strategic objectives. Review annual reports, call and key ratio reports, new releases, and social media posts, and research other leaders through their LinkedIn profiles. This effort will give you insights into the people and the credit union’s performance and priorities.
- Research the Market and Field of Membership – Learn about critical competitors, major employers, the business community, and social, environmental, cultural, and economic challenges.
- Set Objectives – Define your personal and professional objectives for the onboarding process, including relationship-building, operational understanding, leadership development, and strategic alignment goals.
- Orientation and Introduction (this step will take approximately 60 days):
- Create a list of Interviewees – This list should include all senior leaders, peers, direct reports, and a sampling of “skip reports” (staff one or two steps away from a direct report.) In some credit unions, meeting with each Board member is advisable.
- Schedule Meetings – Schedule one-on-one meetings to introduce yourself, learn about their roles, responsibilities, and expectations, and gather insights into the credit union’s operations, culture, leadership tendencies, and strategic alignment. The executive should focus on asking open-ended questions and listening to understand. A best practice is to have a set agenda for each of these meetings of 50 minutes each. The goal is to connect to build a working relationship that will facilitate better communication, foster trust, and pave the way for effective collaboration.
- Attend Orientation Sessions – Participate in all formal orientation sessions conducted by HR or senior management to gain insights into the credit union’s strategic objectives, culture, mission, values, policies, and procedures and to identify any gaps discovered during the interviewing process. Obtain relevant documentation, such as employee handbooks, organizational charts, and procedural manuals.
- Tour Facilities – Familiarize yourself with the credit union’s physical infrastructure, including branch locations, administrative offices, and operational centers. Observe workflows, marketing messages, branding consistency, and member interactions to understand the organization’s operational dynamics. Make an effort to connect with employees at all levels, especially the member-facing employees.
- Document What Was Learned during this Phase – Keep notes and prepare a report to be shared with your boss. In many cases, this report is expected to be shared with the CEO, senior team, and even the Board of Directors.
- Immersion and Integration (a focused effort over the first six months):
- Shadow Staff – Spend time shadowing frontline staff in various departments, such as member services, lending, operations, and compliance. Observe their day-to-day activities, customer interactions, and workflow processes to gain practical insights into operational challenges, opportunities, variations, and alignment issues. Learn from these employees what they like, dislike, and what they would change about their jobs if they could.
- Engage in Hands-On Activities – Participate as an observer in operational tasks, projects, and meetings to immerse yourself in the organization’s activities. Ask questions and seek colleague feedback to demonstrate your commitment to learning and collaboration. Pay attention to how these efforts are organized and led and how collaborative they are.
- Build Relationships – These activities are a way to cultivate strong relationships at all levels of the organization. Schedule one-on-one meetings, informal gatherings, and team-building activities to establish trust, foster open communication, and build a supportive network if you see an opportunity.
- Strategic Alignment (focused effort over the first six months but continuous moving forward):
- Review Strategic Plans – Review the credit union’s strategic plan, strategic roadmap, annual budget, and performance metrics to understand its long-term goals and priorities. Identify strategic initiatives, growth opportunities, and areas you, in your role, can improve on.
- Collaborate with Leadership – Engage in strategic discussions with the board of directors, CEO, and senior management team for feedback on your plans to align your objectives with the credit union’s overarching vision and strategic direction. Contribute to strategic planning sessions, decision-making processes, and performance reviews to drive organizational excellence.
- Develop Action Plans – Commit to specific action plans and initiatives that support achieving strategic objectives, including milestones and metrics reportable to the leadership team and the board.
- Reflect and Adapt:
- Reflect on your experiences, challenges, and successes throughout the onboarding process. Continuously evaluate your performance, adjust your strategies, and refine your leadership approach to maximize your effectiveness and impact as an executive in the credit union.
By following this structured onboarding process, new executives can accelerate their integration into the credit union, align their efforts with organizational objectives, and lay the foundation for long-term success and leadership excellence.